Paul’s Journey to Rome

Every time you read a Bible story, ask yourself: where else in the text can this story be found?  And also ask: how does knowing where this text is coming from help in my understanding of it?  The Bible frequently plays upon and expands upon itself.  Why is this relevant?  A substantial portion of the entire New Testament is written in this manner.  Time after time, Jesus uses the Tanakh (Old Testament) as a foundation for what he teaches and the stories he tells.

Join me today as we look at an interesting story in the New Testament which expands upon at least three other stories in the Bible!  Is this a story about Paul having a hard time getting from one place to another?  Or is there something deeper going on?

The Context in Acts 27

In Acts 27 we find the story of Paul sailing to Rome.  He’s headed to the Gentile capital of the world, the pagan center of the universe, all to stand trial before Caesar which is something that Paul has chosen to do and could have avoided if he wanted to.  He was not required to go to Caesar and could have walked free at any time since he was cleared of his charges by Festus and Agrippa.

30The king rose, and with him the governor and Bernice and those sitting with them. 31They left the room, and while talking with one another, they said, “This man is not doing anything that deserves death or imprisonment.”

32Agrippa said to Festus, “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.”

–Acts 26:30-32

So off to Caesar he goes and by boat.  What will happen to him when he tries to specifically to go to the Gentiles by boat?  Before we find out, let’s see what happens in the Bible when others have gone to the Gentiles by boat.

Solomon and Jehoshaphat

In the Tanakh we can see that ships and Jews don’t mix.  The only record of a successful fleet is the one that Solomon had constructed but even these are crewed and led by Gentiles sent by Hiram, King of Tyre (a Gentile):

26 King Solomon also built ships at Ezion Geber, which is near Elath in Edom, on the shore of the Red Sea. 27 And Hiram sent his men—sailors who knew the sea—to serve in the fleet with Solomon’s men.

–1 Kings 9:26-27

These ships were for Solomon’s men (Jews) to trade with the world (Gentiles).  Nothing is mentioned of what happened to Solomon’s fleet after his reign but we know that they were lost at some point because much later King Jehoshaphat tried to build a fleet at the same port (there would be no need to build a new fleet if they still had Solomon’s fleet).  This time it met with disastrous consequences:

Now Jehoshaphat built a fleet of trading ships to go to Ophir for gold, but they never set sail—they were wrecked at Ezion Geber.

–Kings 22:48

Eliezer son of Dodavahu of Mareshah prophesied against Jehoshaphat, saying, “Because you have made an alliance with Ahaziah, the LORD will destroy what you have made.” The ships were wrecked and were not able to set sail to trade.

–2 Chronicles 20:37

From early on we see that when the Jews have had ships to go to the Gentiles, they are wrecked.

Jonah

The most famous of the minor prophets, Jonah gains his fame from when he was eaten by a big fish, but how he got there is of interest to this discussion.  Jonah is sent to the Gentiles, but instead he tries to go the other way to Tarshish (also a Gentile city) and he goes by boat!  The text will build upon itself and so immediately we know that there will not be good things for Jonah when he gets on this boat.  This time the story intensifies whereas before we do not know what wrecked the ships (probably a storm, but it could have been enemies) this time we are told what happens to the ship:

4 Then the LORD sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. 5 All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship.

–Jonah 1:4-5

In the end of the storm segment Jonah is thrown into the sea and the ship is saved.  Each time the story is a bit different but it’s the same story being retold, reshaped, and expanded.

Jesus

Jesus also gets on a boat to go to the Gentiles in Matthew 8:23-27.  This story is a retelling of the Jonah story and again we see the text using and expanding on the text.  For a deeper discussion of why this is the Jonah story re-told, see my post: Two Storms, One God.  And so after the Jonah story, what do you think will happen to Jesus when he gets on a boat and heads off to the Gentiles?  There’s going to be a storm!

In ancient times, storms were seen by the Jews as demonic power, and by the pagans as their gods’ wrath.  Baal was the ancient fertility god who sent sent rain (Ahab was a big Baal worshiper, so why do you think Elijah cursed the sky with a drought?  It was to prove Baal is not god) and by the first century he had been supplanted by the Greek fertility god Pan.  Large bodies of water were “the abyss” which was where demons were thought to live.  This is why when Jesus is walking on the water the disciples’ first reaction is that they were seeing a ghost.  This is also why when Jesus reaches the other side and encounters demons, he sends them into a herd of pigs which rush into the abyss (as Luke recounts the same story in Luke 8).

Based on what they believed about large bodies of water and about storms, I think it’s safe to say that the writer is trying to build an image in the mind of the reader of demonic opposition to Jesus’ attempt to go to the Gentiles and Jesus defeating it.

Paul

Finally we get to Paul who is specifically heading off to the Gentiles this time.  He has used a boat before, but it has not been specifically for reaching Gentiles.  His other uses of a boat were for his missionary journeys on which he was reaching Jews and Gentiles.  And what do you think will happen to Paul when he gets on this boat to go to the Gentiles?  A storm, of course!  Does Paul make this inference?

So Paul warned them, 10“Men, I can see that our voyage is going to be disastrous and bring great loss to ship and cargo, and to our own lives also.” 11But the centurion, instead of listening to what Paul said, followed the advice of the pilot and of the owner of the ship.

–Acts 27:9b-11

He knew it was coming!  There is no hint of prophecy or revelation in these words.  I think that because Paul knew the Jesus stories (as well as the others I’ve mentioned) he saw it coming.  They decide not to listen to him and sure enough, Paul’s prediction comes true.

14Before very long, a wind of hurricane force, called the “northeaster,” swept down from the island. 15The ship was caught by the storm and could not head into the wind; so we gave way to it and were driven along. 16As we passed to the lee of a small island called Cauda, we were hardly able to make the lifeboat secure. 17When the men had hoisted it aboard, they passed ropes under the ship itself to hold it together.

–Acts 27:14-17a

The very next verse mentions their fear.  Sound familiar?  A big storm, the ship is threatening to break up, and fear by those aboard?  The writer wants us to know that this is linked to the previous stories and continues:

18We took such a violent battering from the storm that the next day they began to throw the cargo overboard.

–Acts 27:18

So the writer has clearly linked this story to Jonah.  The story of Jesus in the boat took the Jonah story and retold it and now Paul’s story is doing the same thing.  Paul isn’t God and so he cannot calm the storm, but an angel appears to him and tells him that no one will die.  Here we see a third ending to the story!  Jonah’s ended when they threw him overboard, Jesus’ ended when he calmed the storm, and Paul’s will end in shipwreck but no one with him will die.  Paul also defeats the storm, though not in the same way that Jesus did.

The storm, simply put, was Satan’s opposition to Paul attempting to reach the Gentiles.  And if you think that’s a stretch, what happens once he arrives on the shore?  A snake bites him (Acts 28:2)!  Could it be any clearer?

Once again we see that when we examine a story and ask ourselves “where else in the text is this coming from?” we gain new insight into it.  This isn’t just a story about Paul having a difficult time getting from point A to point B, this is a story about GOD verses the devil!  The Good News is: God wins.

Peace to you,

James

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4 thoughts on “Paul’s Journey to Rome

  1. James,

    Interesting thoughts, thanks.
    A remark on your “storms were seen by the Jews as demonic power”. This doesn’t seem to be the case in the stories you cite, about Jehoshaphat and Jonah; isn’t God causing the storms here ?
    This raises the question who causes the storm in Paul’s shipwreck. Perhaps God doesn’t want Paul to go to the gentiles ? Any reference where Paul is obstructed by demons/Satan ?

    Bob

    • Bob,

      Thanks for your comment. I realize that the stories of Jehoshaphat and Jonah do not cite demonic power as the reason for the storms. However, I am drawing upon a broader cultural and religious idea, which is that storms are the providence of the gods. For Canaanite religion, Baal was the storm god. For Babylonian religion (where the Jews spent a very formative period in exile), Marduk (the chief god) was the storm god. This of course translates to many of the ancient myths, including Greek (Zeus) and Egyptian (Seth). For the Jews, however, it’s pretty clear that they understood storms at sea to be the work of demonic forces. The sea was the abyss, the way to Sheol. The two examples from the Gospels that I give above shows that this was a common belief by first century Jews. For the me, the story of the snake bite following the storm seals the deal. It’s pretty clear that this writer is trying to portray Paul like Jesus and the other prophets through this story.

      Peace,
      James

  2. Thanks James, for your elaborate reply. I agree that pagan religions often featured storm gods, that could wreck ships when they were agitated etc. But it is risky to translate pagan traditions into 1st century Judaism. Obviously, Judaism was strictly monotheistic by this time, so basically everything in the world expressed God’s will somehow, including storms.
    I’m therefore not surprised that the Old Testament texts you cite do not mention demons; in fact, the Old Testament assigns control of the seas to God in several places; Just think of the Noah story (now a hit movie…..), Ps 104:5-9, Jonah 2:6-7, Ps. 65:5-7, 77:19, 89:9, 93:3-4; Ex. 14-15; Isa. 51:10 and many others.

    I think the demonic aspects evolved later, during the early Middle Ages, together with Kabbalah.
    Regarding the snake: in Judaism, then and now, the snake in the garden of Eden is not identified with Satan, this is a Christian interpretation. So I think Paul’s snake bite harks back to Jesus’ prophecy that snakes would not kill his disciples ( Mark 16:17-18).

    • Hi Bob,

      I wrote this article before attending seminary. If I wrote it today, I would qualify it differently for sure. I think we’re pretty much in agreement here. I do still think that the sacred text plays upon itself in ways we often miss.

      Peace,
      James

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